CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter published an influential essay in Harper's Magazine titled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." It came to mind recently in the context of the hysteria and hyperbole of the health care debate. Parts could have been written today.
Hofstadter observed that "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds." Recurring throughout the nation's history he found a style of mind that was paranoid not necessarily in the clinical sense but nevertheless characterized by a "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy. ..."
Holy granny-whacking, Batman! This same style of mind has shown itself to be alive and well in the bizarre rumors of death panels, mandatory abortions, euthanasia, government takeovers, Sovietized health care, etc. - sometimes seasoned with a dash or two of speculations about the Kenyan birth of a certain elected official.
In the 1990s, we saw the paranoid style in the form of militia-related movements aimed at countering a United Nations takeover of America. Before that, there were groups like the John Birch Society, which imagined a communist conspiracy that included such noted Soviet agents as Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. Then there was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who accused the U.S. Army of being a hotbed of subversion.
One can find it recurring from the early days of the republic, when pamphlets appeared in the late 1700s regarding the evil conspiracies of the Freemasons and the dreaded Bavarian Illuminati, a group that some people still think is really pulling the strings.
In the 1800s, some were alarmed by an alleged conspiracy involving Roman Catholicism, especially the dreaded Jesuits. One such writer claimed that "Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery."
In 1855, a Texas newspaper reported that "...It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. ..."
Substitute a few words and this could have been shouted out at a health-care town hall meeting this summer.
Hofstadter, following sociologist Daniel Bell, found a sense of being dispossessed to lie at the root of modern political paranoia. Its proponents believe that:
"America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power ..."
Adherents see the world in apocalyptic terms and themselves at the barricades at the last battle, with everything at stake. Political conflicts are not seen as routine differences of viewpoints to be mediated in a rational way. Rather, they are wars between absolute good and absolute evil where "what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated - if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention."
This unrealistic approach to social conflict and desire for absolute victory only increases the frustration felt by the true believers, even if they experience partial success. The enemy is always elusive and dangerous. The triumph is never complete.
This may explain why some hard-core right-wingers were outraged and angry not so long ago even when their allies controlled all branches of the federal government.
In the paranoid view, the enemy "is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman - sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way."
There are no accidents in this view. Everything that happens is the result of someone's malevolent will. The enemy holds vast sources of power, whether through mass media, educational institutions, or financial resources and is always a master of mind manipulation.
Taking the long view of history, Hofstadter believed that the tendency to paranoid worldviews is a constant among some people, usually a small minority. But in periods of social strain or major change, these can sometimes erupt into mass movements and political parties. The adherents of such views seem to suffer whether they win or lose. No victory is ever complete. Any loss or setback only seems to confirm their darkest imaginings.
Hofstadter concluded by saying, "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."
Here's hoping the latest flare-up of political paranoia won't cause too much harm.
Wilson is director of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project and publishes a daily blog, www.goatrope.blogspot.com.